Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Lemur - Benjamin Black

Now, I have always approved of Banville's secondary career as Benjamin Black.  I have reviewed most if not all of his oeuvre on this blog.  OK, I didn't like Christine Falls as much the other Quirke novels, but I loved the faux Chandler of The Black-Eyed Blonde.  It is scarcely a secret that I am drawn to novellas, largely because they are all I can write myself in my current condition, so when I saw this slim volume by Black sitting on the shelf I had to have it,

Woe is us, for we are undone.  This - and I have to be blunt because Banville-Black is a major writer with a reputation of which he is prickly proud - is execrable scrapings from the barrel base.  What is the bloody point?  It's short but it is not a novella because a novella is as long as it needs to be whereas this is as long as Black can stretch the tissue-thin plot.  The characters are all horrible without a single redeeming virtue, and that's only the main characters, the other participants have no character.  The character who might just have sparked some empathy, the titular Lemur, is the victim in the so-called mystery.  The obvious solution is someone we have never encountered and therefore don't give two hoots about.

It's set in some ghastly super-rich New York milieu in which multimilliionaire Big Bill Mulholland is ex-CIA (yawn) but still wants his forty-something son-in-law, the Irish super-journalist John Glass (don't give me that, Banville, I've read Irish newspapers) to write his biography, which - surprise, surprise - quickly uncovers uncomfortable truths.  Glass is too lazy to do any writing, his wife is a sexless rich bitch, his mistress is a Boho artist who splashes paint about to no effect, and stepson David is Tony Curtis sending up Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot without being in any way amusing.

It's awful.  It's like the American  TV super-soaps of the 1980s and just about as insightful.  It will be a while before I go near a Banville-Black again.

Monday, 28 March 2016

The Testament of Mary - Colm Toibin

I remember when this novella came out in 2012. There was a lot of fuss, mentions of transgression.  Turns out it's not transgressive at all and rattles no more cages than Toibin's supremely bland Brooklyn which came out around the same time.

This is not to say it's badly written.  It's not. Nor is it illuminating, moving or - I'm afraid to say - particularly interesting.  The Jesus who appears here is the official one, the one who works miracles, who speaks in Thee's and Thou's, and who is obsessed with his mission.  The disciples, unnamed, who pop up from time and time, are slightly more interesting, after the crucifixion squabbling about what is the official version and who gets to write it, at the crucifixion itself notable by their patently craven absence.  Indeed, it was this explicit suggestion by Toibin, through Mary, that I found the most interesting aspect of the book.

Mary herself is sadly not especially interesting.  Her role seems to have been the Gospel one - she gave birth to Jesus, nursed him through infancy, and tben lost touch or was cast off.  The title is accurate; this is Mary's account of what she saw of her son's ministry and death - the account the Gospel writers prefer to ignore because it tends to diminish them.  The structure, switching between Mary's declining present and the dangerous past in which her son is captured and crucified, works well.  Toibin doesn't shy away from the other Marys of the traditional narrative and focuses on Mary, the sister of Miriam and Lazarus.  This Mary accompanies our Mary to Golgotha. She also links in Lazarus, raised from the dead after four days - we are left in doubt that he was really dead and returned - but not to full life.  He cannot eat or drink, just moans and groans, evidently in mental and physical pain.  The present Mary is also facing up to death.  The question is suggested: Will she be restored to eternal life as the gospellers would have her believe, or the sort of quasi-life that Lazarus endured?

Perhaps Toibin would have done better to explore the Lazarus story.  He didn't and must be judged on what he did write.  As I say, the writing is masterly.  There are subtle questions and suggestions here.  Overall, though, I found it hard to care about this Mary whose only purpose in life seems to have been to act as a divine birthing pod and, for a brief few weeks, mute witness to an appalling death.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Man Who Was M - Anthony Masters

The subtitle of this minor classic from 1986 is "The Life real-life spymaster who inspired Ian Fleming". Well, we all need a hook, but the connection is wafer thin.  For one thing Maxwell Knight was never a field agent and never travelled the world in the hunt for foreign agents.  Max was strictly London-based and spent his MI5 career bringing down the enemy within, be it Percy Glading, communist co-ordinator of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring of 1938 or the highly-connected Fascists of the Right Club two years later. In both instances Knight infiltrated glamorous young women agents (Olga Gray and Joan Miller respectively) whilst he stayed secluded in his flat in Dolphin Square.with his menagerie of snakes and aye-ayes and bugs.

It's not just the wildlife that distinguishes Knight from James Bond, it's also the sex life. Not only did Knight never have sex with Gray or Miller, albeit both were in love with him and the latter even lived with him, he was married three times and never consummated any of the unions. Knight was frankly weird. Masters ponders his subject's sexuality but of course cannot come up with a conclusion.

After the war Knight became, of all things, a freelance broadcaster on natural history with the BBC. Indeed it was as the much-loved Uncle Max, author of books for children such as The Young Naturalist's Field Guide (1952) that he was memorialised when he died in 1968.

Masters' account of the Right Club is a good as any.  His rendering of the Woolwich Arsenal case is better than most and I had never before across the case of Ben Greene, cousin of Graham and (Sir) Hugh, which ultimately ruined Knight's standing in spy-circles, although I suppose there are worse things than being ostracised by an MI5 run by the likes of Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Hollis. Masters spoke to people who knew Knight, including his two surviving wives, who can of course never be asked again.  The only trouble is, he says that Knight was 68 when he died.  No he wasn't; he was born in September 1900 and died in January 1968. He was therefore 67. A minor slip, perhaps, but it undermines confidence.  That's why I called it a minor classic. A bit more care and The Man Who Was M might just be a classic.

Ginger, You're Barmy - David Lodge

This is a reissue of Lodge's 1962 novel based on his own National Service. The point, as in fiction by many other reluctant recruits, is that National Service was pointless and boring. Problem is, pointless and boring doesn't make for winning fiction.  Lodge gets round this by cleverly compressing the action into the beginning and end of his avatar Jonathan's two-year stint. Everything between, he implies, is the boring stuff we don't need to bother with.

He freely admits to borrowing the device from Graham Greene's The Quiet American. Indeed, his 1982 afterword is, for once, useful and informative.  By 'for once' I don't mean to slight Lodge but to scorn the practice of publishers who tend to think that they have to add something extra to reissued novels for the benefit, presumably, of the hard of thinking. Anyway, in this instance it does add value.

Rather than make himself the rebellious character - another typical problem of the sub-genre - Lodge's Jonathan is the pragmatic one who gets on with it and makes the best of a bad job.  The rebel here is the ginger Irishman, Mike Brady, who is simply one of nature's nonconformists.  Brady goes completely off the rails when the bullying victim that always exists in any bunch of confined young men, dies.  He attacks the bully and pays the price.  He thus leaves the novel about two-thirds of the way through.  Big problem, we might assume, leaving us with the boring plodder Jonathan Browne.  Even as a fledgling author, however, Lodge had the skills to stave off disaster.  We already know that he is courting Brady's girlfriend - another benefit of the flashback structure - so our interest now centres on how this came to be.  Is he really making his narrator a bit of a shit?  No he isn't, and the courtship is touchingly handled.  Then, towards the end, Brady naturally resurfaces, now a member of a quite different army.

Ginger is, of course, a proper English comic novel.  Which is not say it is funny or - as the guff on the cover seems to suggest, farcical - but simply that it views its world and those who inhabit with good humour and general positivity.  There are smiles rather than laughs.  Lodge is too good at characterisation to waste time on jokes.  The book is lean - two hundred or so pages - yet there is considerable depth and disquisition. Interestingly, it is Lodge's only first-person narration (at least it was in 1982).  He seems to suggest this is a weakness but I consider it a great blessing.  The beauty of a narrator is that you have no choice but to enter his or her world because it's the only one on offer.  You don't have to like him but you can't be allowed to loathe him.  Mike Brady, without Jonathan's explanation of his shortcomings, might be insufferable.  As it is, we share Jonathan's fascination with him.

I have read of lot of Lodge over the years.  On the whole I prefer his early work.  I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson, where have you been all my life.  In fairness, you've been dead for 85% of it so it's not really your fault. I blame the publishers.  I blame critics for not dragging your work regularly into the spotlight.  I blame myself.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is only a novella - Jackson made her name with a short story, 'The Lottery', and she is clearly comfortable in the short form. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the best neo-gothic or indeed American Gothic novella I have ever read.  It is a work of the highest art.  It is a work of genius.  Check out the first paragraph and weep with glee:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Every one else in my family is dead.

It's worth reading that again when you have finished the story and all has been revealed. Then you realise the forensic precision of that list, the sort of list we all put together when we are six or seven but which is bad news when created by an eighteen year old. But, as you might guess, Merricat is not an ordinary girl, her childish precocity is not normal because she's not really a child any more.

To discuss the story in any detail would be to give too much away because every sentence here is a polished precision cog in the fictional machine. Every action and incident pays off in the end.  It is, in short, a masterpiece, not only of genre but of all literature.  It is beyond a must-read.  It ought to be compulsory for anyone who dares to venture onto similar turf.  It is an object lesson and an inspiration. I loved every word.

Fatale - Jean-Patrick Manchette

Manchette was only in his early fifties when he died and wrote less than a dozen crime novels, yet he founded a sub-genre (neo-polar, or new crime fiction) that is still hugely influential. David Peace writes the introduction to this edition and the echoes of Manchette in his work soon becomes clear.

Manchette is big news in France but only three of his neo-polars seem to have been published in English translations.  In this instance I'm not sure about the translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. On the one hand it seems awkward and stilted; on the other, what are you supposed to do with sentences like this, describing two local newspapers: "One of them championed a left-capitalist ideology; the other championed a left-capitalist ideology"? In fact, I really must brush up on my French and have a go at the original. Overall, I suspect the Nicholson-Smith has got it right.

Manchette's twist on the traditional crime novel is that he is clear throughout that he writes, unlike his fictional provincial newspapers, from the Hard Left.  The aristocracy is debased and the bourgeoisie is contemptible. His is a world of Marxist black and white, good and bad.  Actually, just bad.  His femme fatale, Aimee - which we are told straight-off his not her real name nor even the name she will be known by tomorrow - is the ultimate of her kind, sexy and utterly amoral.  She kills for a living. The mystery of the novel is who will she kill in this little town, and how will she profit from the kill.

Like all the best noir, Fatale is brutally short, just 90 pages. I'm not keen on padding the physical book out with forewords and afterwords and this edition has both, the former by Peace, the latter by Jean Echonoz, who I have not heard of before but who I will keep an eye out for now. I have to admit that they add to the experience. Indeed, without them it might have been difficult to engage with Manchette's text.  Engage I certainly did. I loved it. I want more.

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Windsor Faction - D J Taylor

It's an alternate history: Wallis Simpson has conveniently died and Edward VIII thus has no reason to abdicate.  Hitler, of course, still invades Poland and we still go to war.  The twist is that Edward, the Hitler fan, becomes the puppet of the Peace Faction led by Captain Ramsay, the Tory MP for whom section 18b of the Defence Regulations was invented.

Ramsay, for the avoidance of doubt, was so fervently pro-Nazi that he undoubtedly committed treason. The American Embassy cipher clerk Tyler Kent is also real and also a traitor.  Most other characters here are fictional. Beverley Nichols, however, is a very surprising real person to include here, as the author of a heavily nuanced pro-peace King's Speech 1939.  The storyline is, of course, fictional, yet it ends up pretty much as happened in reality, with Ramsay interned for the duration. The odd thing is that the real MI5 agents who trapped him are much more interesting than the fictional Special Branch operatives who pursue him here.

It used to be forbidden in the UK to mention the Right Club (Ramsay's subversive Nazi group) but John Major, of all people, lifted the ban in the early Nineties, so I can't see why Taylor felt the need to invent in this aspect.  The King, indisputably a cracking idea, doesn't really amount to much: Edward was a weak, vain man who would probably have ended the monarchy.  He was passive in life and, unfortunately, he is a nonentity in this story.  The characters who really leap off the page are our heroine Cynthia (and her colonial parents) and, of all people, Beverley Nichols, who was known in my youth for writing in ladies' magazines about flowers.

Taylor switches tense and voice for the various storylines.  Nichols shines because Taylor creates a journal for him.  Cynthia is mainly third person traditional narrative, and the machinations tend to be present tense.

Yes, the novel has faults, but it is driven by sheer imaginative force.  Taylor, whose work I have not read before, writes with both depth and breadth.  He never loses impetus or conviction and there are passages so witty that I laughed out loud, which doesn't happen often.  I am very keen to read more of his fiction.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Strange Shores - Arnuldur Indridason

It is 2010 and Inspector Erlunder in on leave, revisiting - as he often does - his childhood home in rural East Iceland. Being Icelandic and a loner, Erlunder camps out in a long-abandoned, ruined cottage - despite sub-zero nighttime temperatures.

He is drawn back to his roots because this is where, forty years ago, everything changed for him.  He was ten, his brother Bergur ('Beggi') was eight, yet they accompanied their father out into a snowstorm to rescue sheep.  The boys became detached from their father. Erlunder made it home, Biggi didn't.

What can Erlunder hope to find after four decades?  Beggi's body was never found.  Erlunder speaks to the locals (who do not share his big-city sociability). The suggestion is made that foxes might have scavenged the remains and taken bits back to their earths.  Hunters often discover bits and bobs.  One of them, the especially curmudgeonly Ezra, found a toy car - the little red car that Biggi had in his mitten that fateful night and which Erlunder was jealous of.

Ezra can't remember, after all these years, where he found the car.  But he remembers another disappearance in a snowstorm that dates back even further - Matthildur, the wife of Ezra's fishing partner Jakob, disappeared during an especially vicious snowstorm in 1942.  Other people have mentioned Matthildur's disappearance to Erlunder. So little happens in this remote district that it is still a talking point seventy years later.  The intriguing thing is that the body was never found, even though an entire British Army squadron caught in the same storm all turned up eventually, dead or alive.

The missing body hooks Elender and he sets out to solve the mystery.  Why did she decide to set out to cross the mountain in January?  Was it something to do with her nasty-sounding husband?  Did her disappearance link in some way to Jakob's death, in a shipwreck seven years later? Why do some many people still care?  For exactly the same reason that he, Erlunder, cannot rest - cannot escape his memories and his dreams - until he has found his long-lost brother.

All he knew was that somewhere on his journey through life time had come to a standstill, and he had never managed to wind the mechanism up again. [p. 275]
I was wary when I realised that this was an out-of-series novel but Indridason has a masterful way of switching between past and present.  You always know where and when you are, even when you are sharing Erlunder's hectic dreams.  Indridason uses short punchy chapters but keeps the pace slow, drawing you deeper and deeper into the story.  The revelation, when it comes, is really dark.  The resolution of Erlunder's framing story is really touching.

For me, the best Indridason I have read so far.